Philadelphia Museum Shaped Early American Culture
What does it mean to be an American? In a month-long series that spans three centuries, Weekend Edition Sunday travels to the historic city of Philadelphia to find some answers.
By the time of the Revolutionary War in 1776, Philadelphia had expanded from a small town with a predominantly Quaker population into a bustling mix of communities. It was a rowdy melting pot that included European immigrants and African-Americans living side-by-side in the city's packed quarters.
Philadelphia soon became an economic and political powerhouse, and with that rise it began to shape a new cultural identity that would distinguish "Americans" from their Old World roots. At the forefront of this cultural change was Charles Willson Peale.
Tucked in a corner of Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood is the historic Palmer Cemetery, the final resting place of Revolutionary War heroes, politicians and some of the earliest American businessmen.
Established in 1732, Palmer Cemetery is one of the country's oldest free burial grounds — and it's still active. The cemetery is open to residents of this once-thriving fishing and shipbuilding port known as "Fishtown" on the banks of the Delaware River.
Anyone who resides in Fishtown when he or she dies has the right to be buried among the earliest Americas in Palmer Cemetery.
The cemetery has reached capacity, so the process of finding a burial plot is decidedly unorthodox — head out with a metal rod and begin poking into the ground in search of empty space. Today, 18th century tombstones stand alongside one that marks the grave of an Iraq war veteran, for instance.
Historians describe Peale, who was born in 1741, as a visionary of his time — an artist, a scientist and a naturalist.
He is probably best known for his portraits of some of the patriots of the Revolution. What isn't as well known is that he is essentially responsible for the United States' museum system today. Peale began by collecting artifacts and displaying them in his home in the heart of Philadelphia before moving them to a larger site that became one of the country's first public museums: the Philadelphia Museum.
"He was a soldier in the American Revolution and in fact managed to meet all the major generals, including Washington. In the course of his travels, he painted all of their portraits, set up a painting room here in Philadelphia, served in the state Legislature," says David Brigham, the Edna S. Tuttleman Museum Director at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
"In 1786, someone brought to him a bone from Kentucky of a mastodon, and Peale was fascinated by it and put it on display in his painting room, and found that it was a greater attraction than all the paintings that he had amassed of the leaders of the American Revolution," Brigham says.
Because Peale was a curious person who was brought up during the Enlightenment, Brigham says, "he established what became the most important and really the first public museum of art and science in America."
Peale wanted his museum to be a national university, accessible "to both the learned and the unwise," Brigham says. He wanted to draw people from across all social classes, and crafted lectures and presentations that would be interesting and relevant to the widest range of people.
Brigham says Peale also believed that the new nation needed economic as well as political freedom. By understanding nature, promoting innovation and showcasing accomplished people, Peale felt that he could encourage this economic independence.
In many respects, Brigham says, Peale drafted the blueprint for the way museums are run today.
"Not only did he create the first museum, but he created the first marketing campaigns, the first solicitations for gifts to his museum," Brigham says. "He had certificates that donors received that said, 'Of grains of sand are mountains made.' The idea was that ... this was not only Peale's museum, it was the community's museum. It was the nation's museum, and he really believed that."
An annual ticket to the museum cost a dollar, and early members included everyone from presidents to congressmen to merchants and skilled laborers.
Carol Soltis, curator of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says Peale's exhibits had to be crowd-pleasers because much of his funding came from ticket sales. "So you had to do things like have moving pictures — he painted these moving pictures with lights behind them, and that was fun. ... He brought in professors to lecture on different topics and he had new ethnographic finds," she says.
Peale's museum ultimately became the repository for specimens and objects from expeditions out West. "There was no Smithsonian, so you would send it to Peale," Solis says.
After Peale's death in 1827, the museum was left to his sons. But by the 1840s, the museum had closed. Most of the artifacts were sold off. In fact, one of the buyers was the ultimate showman, PT Barnum.
Many of Peale's 19th century ideas are still fresh, Brigham says.
"He wanted culture not to be difficult and somehow painful, but fun and uplifting and entertaining. ... It was described in the 20th century as middle-brow culture," Brigham says. "We have a high-brow, low-brow division, but there's an awfully big middle brow. And I think Peale was an advocate of that middle brow — PBS, The History Channel and things like that, that you can be educated and learn in a fun way."
This story was produced by Gemma Watters and edited by Jenni Bergal.
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. All this month we're asking the question, who is an American? The city of Philadelphia where the colonists declared independence is a good place to find answers. And the answers differ from century to century. Our series began last Sunday when reporter Joel Rose told us about the city in 1708 and the Quakers.
JOEL ROSE: As of 1708, Quakers were easily the largest group in Philadelphia.
Unidentified Man: Philadelphia next.
HANSEN: We recently took a train up to Pennsylvania to learn about the Philadelphia of 1808, and to hear the story of a 19th century visionary, Charles Wilson Peale. Born in 1741 on the eastern shore of Maryland, Peale applied the democratic ideals of the new nation to culture. He studied painting with Benjamin West in London and eventually settled in the City of Brotherly Love.
(Soundbite of traffic)
HANSEN: I'm standing at the corner of 3rd and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia. It's a very busy intersection. On the corner you can see new condos. There's a school for boys and girls across the street. But this site used to be the home of Charles Peale.
Charles Peale is probably best known for his portraits of some of the patriots of the revolution. But you may not know that he is essentially responsible for the museum system we have in the United States. He began to collect artifacts and displayed them in his home here at 3rd and Lombard. He eventually moved to a bigger site. And to find out more about it, we'll have to go to an institution that he helped to found, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Dr. DAVID BRIGHAM (Museum Director, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts): I'm David Brigham, the Edna S. Tuttleman museum director at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
HANSEN: When we met Brigham at the Academy, he escorted us to a gallery upstairs full of Peale's portraits to tell us more about the man.
Dr. BRIGHAM: He was a soldier in the American Revolution, and in fact managed to meet all of the major generals, including Washington. He painted their portraits. Set up a painting room here in Philadelphia. In 1786, someone brought to him a bone from Kentucky of a mastodon, and Peale was fascinated by it and put it on display in his painting room and found that it was a greater attraction than all of the paintings. So, being a curious person and someone who was brought up in the enlightenment tradition, established what became the most important and really the first public museum of art and science in America.
HANSEN: David Brigham also says that Peale wanted his museum to be a national university, that it should be available to the learned and the unwise.
Dr. BRIGHAM: This was not going to be an aristocratic nation, and the education would not be reserved for the few. There was a great deal of discussion in the early Republic about how we would sustain this new nation that we had created, not only political freedom but economic freedom. And Peale felt that by understanding nature, by promoting new inventions, that he could encourage that economic independence.
HANSEN: There's a painting of Peale's we wanted to see across town on the second floor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So we met up with Curator Carol Soltis, an expert on Peale. She walked us over to a portrait of his two sons, Raphaelle and Titian Ramsay Peale I. It's called "The Staircase Group."
Carol, are you taking us to the Peales?
Ms. CAROL SOLTIS (Curator, Philadelphia Museum of Art): Yes.
HANSEN: Great. It looks like Peale is having some fun with us here, with this installation. Because as I walk up to it, it does look like a doorway, and there is a step.
Ms. SOLTIS: Yes.
HANSEN: But then, the painting begins, but it's like that trompe d'oeil feeling where you're...
Ms. SOLTIS: Exactly.
HANSEN: It's not - it's one dimensional, but it looks two, three dimensional.
Ms. SOLTIS: This is another picture that I think is so multilayered, because you had it as a kind of advertisement for the museum. You see Raphaelle representing art, striding up the staircase, and you see Titian Ramsay Peale I pointing upward. The whole idea of nature and up to nature is God, so a very common thing that you see in old master paintings.
HANSEN: Soltis says Peale was a deist. His museum of natural specimens and manmade objects was to represent God's work, and Peale wanted to educate people about how to continue and nurture that work. He kept the museum open in the evening so working people could see the displays and attend lectures. Anyone was welcome, anyone who could afford the 25 cent admission that is. David Brigham says that in many respects Peale drafted the blueprint for the way museums are run today.
Dr. BRIGHAM: Not only did he create the first museum, but he created the first marketing campaigns, the first solicitations for gifts to his museum. He had certificates that donors received that said "Of grains of sand are mountains made." So the idea that - was that this was collective, that this was not only Peale's museum, it was the community's museum, it was the nation's museum, and he really believed that.
HANSEN: Again, Carol Soltis.
Ms. SOLTIS: For Peale, it was about educating, enlightening, and entertaining. He had to please the public to some degree, because he got his money mostly from admissions. So you had to do things like have moving pictures, which he painted these moving pictures with lights behind them, and that was fun. He brought in professors to lecture on different topics. And he had new ethnographic finds.
He - ultimately, the museum became the repository for the expeditions out west for Lewis and Clark and those coming after. And Jefferson would just sort of send him stuff, you know. It was like it was a place to go with it. You know, there was no Smithsonian, so you send it to Peale.
HANSEN: After Charles Wilson Peale's death at the age of 85 in 1827, the museum was left to his sons. But they were not as successful as their father, and by the 1840s the Peale Museum had closed. Most of the artifacts were sold. In fact, one of the buyers was the ultimate showman, P.T. Barnum. But according to David Brigham, many of Charles Wilson Peale's 19th century ideas are still fresh today.
Dr. BRIGHAM: He wanted culture not to be difficult and somehow painful, but fun and uplifting and entertaining. And I think that is something that has consistently come down to us into the 21st century. It was described in the 20th century as middlebrow culture. And you know, we have a highbrow, lowbrow division, but there is an awfully big middlebrow. And I think Peale was an advocate of that middlebrow, PBS, The History Channel, things like that that you can be educated and learn in a fun way.
HANSEN: David Brigham is the Edna S. Tuttleman museum director at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He also wrote the book, "Public Culture in the Early Republic: Peale's Museum and its Audience." Our thanks also to Carol Soltis from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.